While my student Peou wasn’t transgender or having any gender identity issues that she voiced to me, she certainly, at least, from my point-of-view, sported some androgyny, especially for a prepubescent eleven year old: she had a deeper tembre to her voice, wore her hair both long and short, and never wore typically female adornments like earrings, nail polish, or even the skort of the school uniform. In short, she didn’t display any of the typical girl cues, and I assumed she was a boy for over a year.
Much to my surprise, and chagrin, he turned out to be a she and unlike your adopted stray turtle that ends up hatching a clutch of eggs, this error left me feeling quite disturbed and wondering how I could make an error of such magnitude. I was certain that she was a boy. How could I be so wrong?
Be sure to check out the post in which I tell the entire story in detail. It is both amusing and interesting.
Let’s walk through some of the ways that we determine gender in others and draw parallels to the discomfort that transgenderism activates in conservatives.
I’m NOT a Transphobe!
I am not a transphobe, homophobe, or any other kind of intolerant bigot. I’ve worked hard as my many blog posts attest to work through many of my prejudices. And, like my grief from working with people with AIDS, I thought I had done so successfully. That is until the universe saw fit for Peou’s and my paths to intersect.
I worked in the gay community in the early days of the AIDS epidemic from 1987 to 1992 or so. I did HIV blood test counseling interviewing people for their risk factors, i.e. gay sex activities. I spearheaded the gay bar outreach program where we tested in gay bars. I was a case manager for people with AIDS when everyone who had AIDS was a gay man. I’ve worked closely with crossdressers and trans people for years. I’m comfortable with all of it. I can talk to anyone about anything and accept it all without the least aplomb.
I was a straight married non-smoking white vegetarian back then working in the gay community. As I used to like to say, I could have a headache with anyone… and I did!
There are specific cues that we use to determine the gender of the people we’re meeting. Bona fide science has figgered it all out!
We evolved to be a dimorphic species meaning that there are two distinct versions of us. That distinction is phenotypically, socially, and individually expressed. Every culture has gender specific roles that are have corresponding identifiers. Women do this, men do that. It helped us in our hunter gatherer days; it doesn’t help so much now.
Culturally based gender cues include hairstyle, clothing, adornments, and names. Traditionally in the West, girls have long hair, wear dresses, and wear jewelry. They don’t engage in rough physical sports and violence. Traditionally.
Of course, nowadays many of those traditions have been bent. Boys are wearing makeup and jewelry including dangling earrings. Girls are playing on college football teams, albeit as place kickers.
Gender specific behavior starts young. I remember when La Petite Fille declared that she couldn’t do something — I’ll be damned if I can remember what exactly — because that was for boys when she was three. People treat newborn infants differently based on gender. My point is, even children engage in gender-specific behaviors. Peou had rejected many of those girly-girl behaviors.
For many cultures these cues extend to names names. We still give girls girl names, and boys, boy names. That didn’t help here because Peou was Khmer and I don’t recognize their gender-specific names. Culture had let me down.
Facial features can indicate gender. Men have a larger more prominent bone structure, especially across the brow, cheeks, and chin, giving men a more “chiseled” look. Women have softer lines in their faces and higher arching eyebrows.
We can see some of this in action in the morphing of faces from one gender to another:
The problem is that most of these cues are dependent on the sex hormones of testosterone and estrogen in order to form, which are available in sufficient enough quantities until puberty strikes. Peou was pre-pubescent meaning that she hadn’t experienced puberty and the secondary sex characteristics that it causes including the softening of facial features. Facial features had let me down.
The Role of Assumptions and Predictions
We make judgments about people, especially strangers, based on the cues that we get from them. Yes I’m talking about stereotypes, but in the absence of direct knowledge of someone, we rely on the gender, racial, and ethnic markers that we all display to help glean information on which to base predictions on how our interactions may go. This was especially true in our hunter-gatherer days where all of our human characteristics evolved. We used these obvious signs to guide us to assumptions about a stranger. Basic assumptions like friend or foe, angry or not angry, liked or disliked.
It is human to do this. There is no getting around it. You can’t be color blind. Sorry, whitey. It just ain’t possible. We can, however, override these assumptions with cognitive effort. Unfortunately, it takes effort. In the case of my encounters with Peou, though, I was not encountering any negative stereotyping, just a fundamental assumption about another person’s gender that would be used to guide my behavior towards her if in no other way than selecting pronouns.
Being able to predict another person’s behavior and attitudes is fundamental to our sense of safety and sense of control of our world. When encountering a stranger, we use what information we have. Our hunter-gatherer forebears relied on it to keep them safe.
Ambiguity Tolerance and Intolerance
My encounter with Peou brought up the question of contradicting cues. What happens when an individual is displaying both masculine and feminine cues? What happens when their gender is ambiguous?
Ambiguity is the mental state in which information is vague, undefined, or otherwise unclear to the perceiver. If you cannot determine someone’s gender, their gender is ambiguous. The way that we deal with ambiguity is one of the many distinguishing factors between conservative and liberal. Some people tolerate ambiguity better than others. I bet you can guess how that divides out along the political spectrum.
Ambiguity tolerance is the quality of a personality to accept a large amount of uncertainty in information and social situations. This ability also correlates with increased creativity, decreased risk aversion, improved psychological resilience, and the acceptance of diversity and lifestyles… you know, liberals.
Ambiguity intolerance is the quality of a personality to experience a large amount of uncertainty in information and social situations as a threat. These folks feel threatened as in fight or flight response when they cannot predict the likely outcomes of a situation. This characteristic correlates pretty highly with authoritarian personalities. Not particularly surprising. You know, conservatives.
Imagine a conservative dude encountering a bitchin’ babe but realizing that she has a prominent adam’s apple and large wrists like some common Rupaul. Imagine Brock Turner finding her all passed out behind a dumpster and getting his fingers all up in there only to find that there really ain’t any all up in there it be getting his fingers all up in to. How do you expect him to feel?
I mean how is a teenaged Boof-K to know who to rape if everyone can determine their gender based on what they feel it is and not on what Boof-K can force his member into? I mean, come on, you can see how upsetting it is, right?
I mean, what if Trump were to grab some nubile young nymph by the pussy and it turned out not to be so nymphy? How is he supposed to feel good about bragging about raping women if he can’t be 100% sure that these are actually women by his definition of women? We’ve got to think of the rights of the rapists here, don’t we?
It is those mixed gender cues that many transgendered individuals have that drives conservatives to distraction because on the one hand, BOOBS! but on the other, DICK!
My experience with Peou was a lesson in ambiguity, how we resolve it, and what happens when we have to adjust to a new reality of having been absolutely wrong about something as fundamental as the gender identity.
My point here is that it is completely understandable that this situation is discomforting. It doesn’t mean that we should succumb to that discomfort. Inclusivity takes effort and work to confront our internalized biases and prejudices.
If you enjoyed this anecdote out of my life, my explanation of the psychology behind my reaction, and generalization to the wider world, then consider doing one or all of the following:
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This was the feature image from one of my first posts back in May 2016 called Schema Your Head Off. Unfortunately, it was before I was being careful about licensure and copyright. A Google image search reveals that it was used by MonCupid on their DeviantArt account. If it is found to violate any copyright laws, I will gladly remove it.
A basic guide to Psychomorph – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/An-example-of-a-morph-continuum-changing-a-female-face-original-and-source-images-into_fig2_297124784 [accessed 21 Oct, 2021]
Geometric Facial Gender Scoring: Objectivity of Perception – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Facial-gender-is-considered-to-be-a-continuum-over-masculinity-or-femininity-Figure_fig1_263096411 [accessed 21 Oct, 2021]